By Michael Chen | Guest Writer
Michael Chen is an often-thinking, sometimes-writing Chinese American restaurant kid. He graduated from Wheaton College, IL, in 2017 with degrees in Sociology and History and from Yenching Academy at Peking University in 2020 with a degree in China Studies. Since university, he’s had the honor of being a community member in rural Yunnan, Beijing, Oakland, and now DC.
Learning to embrace my Asian American identity has been incredibly life-giving. Even so, I am increasingly convinced that there are serious myths surrounding the term “Asian” and even “Asian American” that continue to dominate our national and private discourse.
The first myth is that the word “Asian” somehow has more substance and meaning than a term like “Celestial” (which white Americans used to describe Chinese people) or “Oriental,” a term that feels outdated and lowercase racist but is actually functionally quite similar.
That is to say, the myth of “Asian-ness” is the same myth of race – that somehow skin color, as coded into roughly five or six categories, can actually tell us something substantive and real about who someone is at their core.
What I do believe is that race, in America, actually tells us a whole lot about someone’s likely experiences but holds no real value in helping us understand someone’s inner life or even their culture.
Some insanity is necessary to draw such enormous geographical circles and then say that there is something innately similar about the culture of everyone who lives in this arbitrary region.
And so, rather than talking about Asians in America as if we are a monolith, or even trying to explain some of the key differences between major groups, I hope to write specifically to a context I know well – the Chinese American Church.
But First, Immigration Facts
Chinese Americans do not equal Chinese people at large. This is something I personally had a hard time understanding. What I mean is, just because most Chinese Americans behave in a certain way, does not mean that Chinese people as a whole would behave in the same way.
Why? Self-selection bias, which is a fancy way of saying that immigrants to America are not a random sample of their home country.
This is largely due to immigration policies that prioritize a certain “type” of people – in the case of many Asian American groups, H1-B visas for highly-skilled workers (read: mostly PhDs in natural sciences) make up the bulk of the immigration stream.
And this piece is absolutely critical to understanding why the Chinese American Church has been historically so allied with conservative white evangelicalism and what challenges that poses to its faithful witness.
Held Captive by Conservativism
The moment you walk into my home church, you are greeted by a massive portrait of an elderly white couple. Not Jesus, but a stately looking, pearl-wearing white couple with kind smiles. While I in no way want to downplay the financial contributions and dedication to ministry of white evangelicals to Chinese American congregations, we must acknowledge and confront it.
Part of the reason Chinese congregations talk about many of the same questions as white evangelicals is because they were in fact sponsored, cared for, funded, and taught by white evangelicals. Pastors are mostly educated in conservative white seminaries in conservative white denominations. (This, by the way, is less true of Christians in China.) See Tim Tseng’s work here and here for more information.
Secondly, church leadership is made up mostly of highly-educated, PhD-in-Chemistry type people (mostly male, which is also less true in China). This self-selected group of high-status Chinese Americans, perhaps due to their education in the natural sciences, are quite suspicious of strongly emotive and charismatic-leaning expressions of faith.
One young woman in our congregation was quite literally pulled out of service by her parents when she was experiencing God in a very vocal manner. (Very vocal experiences of faith, by the way, were common in my experience of churches in China!)
These two factors, and I’m sure there are many more, are critical to understanding the strong influence of conservative politics in Chinese American churches, even as Chinese Americans as a whole have favored more progressive politics.
Even now, videos titled “Trump: God’s Plan A?” and articles written by prominent Chinese American pastors claiming that Trump was sent by God to save America are spreading like wildfire in the Chinese American church community.
We must recognize that many Chinese American congregants, in their support of a xenophobic, women-objectifying, arrogant, tantrum-throwing, big-business prioritizing, science-disbelieving, white nationalism-endorsing megalomaniac are not reflecting Chinese American values but rather, white evangelicalism’s ideological servitude to a party that once declared, “I know you can’t endorse me. . . but I endorse you” (Reagan, 1980) and recently promised, “Christianity will have power” (Trump, 2016).
And as long as Chinese American churches do not recognize just how white their theology and religious values are, they will be held captive to conservative politics just as white evangelicals are.
We Can Grow in Wisdom and Understanding
I imagine most readers have some sense that Asians are not a monolithic group and maybe even a sense that Chinese American Christians are particularly white-adjacent and susceptible to conservative political idolatry. But what can we do from here?
First, learn and understand specific immigration narratives. While the term “Asian American immigration” is far too broad to be practical, more specific categories such as the Vietnamese American refugee experience or Filipino American experience are actually pretty useful.
If you like history and academics, books like Strangers From a Different Shore or Yellow are good starting points. If you like fiction, The Sympathizer is dark, beautiful, and thought-provoking, and American Born Chinese is at once hilarious and heart-breaking. If you’ve never known a rich Asian before, you should watch Crazy Rich Asians; otherwise you can have a look at The Farewell for a deeply Chinese American film.
Lastly, we must recognize and support Chinese American efforts, like Chinese for Affirmative Action, to push back against our white-adjacency.